Children of the evolution: ‘The Black Archive #15: Full Circle’ reviewed

Fifteen volumes in, and the quality of the Black Archive series shows no signs of flagging.

It’s not for nothing that Doctor Who is the longest-running, ongoing sci-fi and fantasy drama in television history. There’s something about its mutable format, able to not only survive changes of  lead actors and production teams but also adapt to shifts in how television itself is produced, packaged and consumed – it seems there will always be a Time-Lord shaped hole in the British television landscape for the series to inhabit.

Even in its absence from that landscape between 1989 and 2005, its flame was kept alive in other media, from novels, audio dramas and comic strips to unlicensed home video productions and fanzines, by fans turned creators, some of whom would become leading lights of the show’s TV revival: Most notably, showrunners Russell T Davies, Steven Moffat and new boy Chris Chibnall, and writers such as Mark Gatiss, Paul Cornell, Gareth Roberts, Robert Shearman and Matt Jones; even two of the ‘modern’ Doctors, David Tennant and Peter Capaldi, are DWAS membership card-carrying fanboys.

As we await the Jodie Whittaker era it’s a good time to bear in mind that the show’s embracing of change and renewal (written into its very DNA since the concept of regeneration was introduced in 1966, and borne out by its ability to completely reinvent itself, Bowie-like, every three or four years) is an essential part of its’ deathless longevity – how apt that one of its earliest episodes was titled The Urge To Live, and its last serial of the ‘80s was defiantly titled Survival.

It’s indomitable… indomitable.

What can we take from this as keys to Doctor Who’s endurance? An unstoppable life-force, dependant on a cycle of mutation and evolution, and a relationship between its makers and its audience whereby the Outsiders can rise to the ranks of the Elite. By a staggering coincidence of the kind you can only find in a contrived 300-word introduction to a book review, these themes are reflected in the narrative of 1981 serial Full Circle and its journey from script to screen, as the first (but by no means the last) Doctor Who story to be written by a young fan-turned-writer  (albeit one who had already written sketches for BBC TV and radio), and to feature another young fan of the series become a regular cast member.

Full Circle is the fifteenth volume in Obverse Books’ Black Archive imprint, and is testimony to the range’s own endurance that it’s showing no signs of flagging in its remit to put individual stories under the microscope and approach the source material from fresh and unusual new angles, in a crowded field – Doctor Who is surely the most thoroughly examined and documented TV series in the history of the medium.

It’s John Toon behind the wheel for this latest volume, and he’s scored an advantage unavailable to many of his predecessors in that he’s been able to correspond with Full Circle writer Andrew Smith – a teen at the time Full Circle aired, and very much with us, having added to his Who CV in recent years with some well-regarded Big Finish plays – and incorporate Smith’s own reflections and recollections as part of this study.

Study is an appropriate word, as this volume devotes a significant amount of its flab-free 110 pages to the evolutionary themes behind Full Circle, looking at how they can be accommodated or extrapolated from both current and archetypal theories of evolution. But don’t be put off – this is not a dour and dusty, finger-wagging, horn-rimmed spectacled extended exercise in “I think you’ll find..” pointy-head debunking of wonky science from a series which historically plays fast and loose with hardcore scientific accuracy and a serial whose author, by his own admission, ‘just wanted to tell an adventure story’. Quite the opposite, as Toon weaves in and out of scientific theories, theology, myth and mysticism; fact, fiction and fantasy, from Darwin to Gaia, via The Creature From The Black Lagoon and ‘red menace’ ‘50s sci fi paranoia, to figure out – amongst other things – just what the hell is going on with those Marshmen and Tellurians, and just how evolution does work on Alzarius.

Toon also takes into account where Full Circle sits as a part of the 1980-1981 eighteenth series of Doctor Who, one of the most distinctive and divisive seasons in the show’s history. A lot of Doctor Who’s most mind-expanding adventures have come out of where hard-headed scientific enquiry meets fantasy, myth and pure allegory – not so much as a conflict as an intersection, and in Season 18 this duality came to a head, with script editor Christopher H Bidmead’s  personal aim to try to (in Toon’s words) ‘put the scientific method at the heart of the show’, often misinterpreted as a determination to ground the show in realistic scientific terms and quash the fantastical.

As Toon rightly points out, from Full Circle onwards – which is where Bidmead is fully able to put his stamp on the season and play a greater role in fine-tuning the scripts – Season 18, for all its re-imagining the Doctor as a rational, problem-solving hero, abounds with “space wizards”, Post-Gothic stagnant civilisations with strict hierarchies, and stories “framed in a way that often borders on the mystical.”

Bidmead’s season 18 has often been feted – not least by this reviewer – as a “prog rock concept album”, or other words to that affect. Toon looks at how this season evolved (that word again!) in production, and makes a fair point that its tonal consistency can mainly be pinned down to ‘secondary’ elements such as accidentally recurring motifs more the result of the hectic production pace than any grand design, JN-T’s overseeing of a more ‘pop video’ look and feel to the show’s costumes, set designs, music and graphics, and the engineering of continuity links to give an impression of consistency without being central to the individual stories.

The E-Space trilogy certainly functions as three discrete adventures linked together in the same fashion as the ‘ongoing serial’ format of Hartnell-era Who, rather than what we now call a ‘story arc’, with the introduction of a new trio of companions being more of a way of seeding JN-T’s reformatting of the show as part of his ‘new broom’ approach than intrinsic to the storytelling, and the foreshadowing of Logopolis in The Keeper of Traken arising as a result of Bidmead taking an increasingly firmer hand in shaping the final drafts of the scripts  thanks to writer Johnny Byrne going “completely incommunicado” at the exact moment rewrites were required.

Earlier in this review, I wrote of Doctor Who’s relationship between the programme makers and its audience – and its’ fair to say that with Full Circle widely publicised on original broadcast as boasting young fans as writer and co-star it made the series suddenly seem more accessible to aspirational fans, in a show where previous peeks behind the scenes were suggestive of a world occupied by middle-aged men smoking copiously and wearing an awful lot of tweed.

Anyone familiar with fandom could uncharitably suggest that this signifies the first evolutionary leap to the modern day phenomenon of fantitlement, but it led the path for fans who loved the show bring their own gifts and talents to its continued survival, long past when anyone at the BBC considered it a going concern.

As Toon writes, “Doctor Who has a long and noble history of reaching out to its fans, encouraging them to think about how the show is made and to engage actively with it” – which is as much an endorsement for the existence of The Black Archive as anything else. This volume is a worthy addition to a range that continues to surprise, enlighten and stimulate the mind as the TV series itself has long endeavoured to – and long may it continue to do so: Chibbers, Jodie – it’s over to you.

❉ ‘The Black Archive #15: Full Circle’ by John Toon is out now from Obverse Books, RRP £3.99 to £7.99. Click here to order.

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